In life, we are plagued by the uncertainty of an afterlife, and it is often expected that when we die, everything will suddenly make sense. But when a group of strangers, similar only in their time of death, find themselves in the afterlife, they are faced with more questions than ever before. Are they in Heaven or Hell? If they’re in Heaven, why is there a Nazi wandering around? Why are there no children? If they are in Hell, what universal law did they break? Is there a way to repent and move on to a better eternity? At least one man seems to have some answers. Marcus, a Roman dead for 2,000 years, gains the group’s trust by leading them through the perils of their new reality. But soon it becomes clear that Marcus is only telling them half the story.
L. A. Barnes is public librarian in the southern US. She is a Nerdist podcast listening, South Park loving, Twin Peaks conspiracy theorizing, Stephen King reading and Joss Whedon worshiping geek. The Pit is her first novel. She plans to explore the Watchmaker’s universe through four more novels.
“OK,” VIRGIL DECLARED, AFTER an extra mile of running, “you can’t just walk down there and get your body. Marcus will be waiting to stop you. And you attract too much attention in that uniform.”
Heinrich rested on a boulder as Virgil paced. Of course people hated him. By now the world surely hated the Nazis. Deborah had told him people arriving at the Gate, strangers, often stopped her when they saw her (actually David’s) uniform. The symbols of the Nazis and their victims were now infamous.
“Have you ever considered changing your clothes?” Virgil asked.
Heinrich had never seen spare clothes, but he knew some must exist. At least they had them at the Gate. But Deborah stuck with David’s uniform, as did many of the Holocaust victims. They considered it a badge of honor, according to Deborah.
Years earlier, Heinrich had been pleased to have died in uniform, but that was when he felt justified in his actions on earth. Now that he felt differently about his actions, did he feel differently about the uniform? There was no simple answer. He hated the party he’d joined, The National Socialist Party, and this uniform identified him as a loyal member. He hated the Fuehrer and all his lies, and the swastika was the symbol that man chose for his reign over the Third Reich. The black cloth and the eagle pin identified him as SS, an organization that barely accepted him and then disregarded him for a list of things about himself and his past that he could not control. But the silhouette of the uniform (a concept he had no words for, by the way) was familiar. The Great War uniforms his father and brothers had died in had tall boots like the ones he wore in Hell. His black pants ballooned above the knee like the riding pants his brothers and father had needed to wear because they might actually ride horses on the battlefield. Even though the horses were gone from war, Germany had not removed their influence from the cut of the trousers. Even the cut and shape of the coat was boxy and similar to both wars. At the end of the day, his uniform was very German. A dark moment in Germany, but still very German. Despite hating his superiors, his Fuhrer, the things he’d done and his German self, he still loved his homeland. How could he put on the dungarees and cotton shirts Rolf wore and pretend he belonged in them.
“Your uniform is why you are dead,” Heinrich asked, “why you don’t change?”
Virgil frowned down at his sleek black uniform. “When I was a kid, I was smart, or at least I got good grades. Everyone—my mom, my aunts, all the old people around me—told me that was my ticket out. Out of the South side, out of our sad rundown apartment, out of this life my mom didn’t choose for us. For years, I believed them, but I didn’t really understand how smart equaled out. Then my aunt let it slip when I was 13 that she expected me to buy her a house when I made it out. So out meant money, I realized. Even then I thought, who cares? Money matters so much to so many people, and I don’t know…it’s water or air…it’s a resource and it only does for you what you make it do. It only matters so much. I was kind of bummed after that because I thought smart equaled out and important—that I would be at the center of… something. It’s hard to explain because it wasn’t a clear vision at the time.
“I knew the name of every person in my building. My mom hated that place. But it was my home—the only home I’d ever known—and I didn’t see it that way, as a sign of failure. It was where I could always find my Mom—where I could help Mrs. Barnes, the old lady down the hall, with her window box roses even if the frost killed them every year. It was where my friends could always find me.
“I was out with my friends one day, and they tried to boost a car: this big green Buick that shouldn’t have been parked on our street to begin with. A cop caught us: big brown dude, this uniform but older, shiny silver badge. And I thought, ‘we are fucked.’ God knows I got to talk to the police more often than I understood. They’d stop me for walkin’ with my hands in my pocket; they’d stop me for looking at ‘em funny; they’d stop me because I was brown and they could. So being caught next to people actually doing something had to be a one-way ticket to jail, right? But this guy was different. He had a twitchy younger partner with him. They separated us. Twitchy watched the group while big and brown took each of us aside and talked to us. He asked questions. He listened to the answers—one by one. Then he didn’t take us in. I think he knew we were kids and we were just testing the waters.
“It affected me even at the time. When you’re a kid, very few adults listen to you. They try to ‘set you right’ by talking at you constantly. But that cop wanted to know my version of the story and then really listened to me. To get that kind of attention from someone I’d already come to distrust and resent was a shock to my system.
“I knew that’s what I wanted to do. It was an oddly narrow vision. I didn’t just want to be any cop—the cop that stops some kid for walking down the street with his hands in his pockets. I wanted to be that dude who separates ‘em all, calms everything down and then talks to everyone until he gets an idea of what happened.
“My mom and aunt were not happy. They had visions of success for me that did not include risking my life or earning money by using my muscle. Being a cop is both. But I saw it as talking to people—being involved—giving a damn what happens to Mrs. Barnes across the hall and being the bigger, calmer person when shit goes down. I didn’t pull it off every day. Maybe a few days a year. But that was the goal.
“I’m glad I died in this. It isn’t the whole of who I am, but it’s such a big part, I’d hate to have left it behind on earth, you know?” Virgil ran his hand over the back of his neck, trying to find a way to explain this feeling. “I’m happy to wear that for everyone to see. Because it’s the truth—an occasionally uncomfortable truth, but still. “
“This is how I feel,” Heinrich attempted. “They hate me. They should hate me.” He pointed at the armband with the offensive symbol. “This is truth. It is what I do and why I am here.”
That was the last time Virgil ever asked him to remove his uniform.
The solution was simple and only took a few more tries to work out. Heinrich entered the Pit just after the blast cleared the place out. This stopped Marcus from interfering because he couldn’t run down the stairs and confront Heinrich. That was the behavior of someone who understood his surroundings. It would blow Marcus’ cover as a Newly Dead person. With Marcus stuck on the platform, pretending he didn’t know what was going on, Heinrich could enter the Pit unmolested. Others threatened him, of course. But they’d all just died; very few had the confidence to run down the stairs moments later. Plus, the bodies reset themselves with each new cycle. The reason Heinrich had struggled to find bodies on the first try was that as time wore on in the Pit, The Dead often shoved them to the side. At the onset of a new cycle, the bodies were lying around to be easily shifted through.
After substantial coaxing from Deborah, Virgil brought Misha along to work on his bodies. At first, Heinrich wondered why Misha hadn’t been with them from the very beginning. Then he watched Virgil’s face as Misha pulled his first body out from underneath two others. The body was African, nude and had a chain around its ankle. Virgil looked down at this like he might be sick. Instead he stepped away and let a confused Misha hoist the heavy body up on his own.
Deborah offered to come with Heinrich; she hoped she could identify bodies of people she’d known who were incarcerated at Dachau. All three of her male friends vehemently opposed this idea. They didn’t want her anywhere near Marcus.
Once Misha and Heinrich knew what they needed to do, Virgil moved on to explore the City, and Deborah returned to her work at the Camp. The two mass murderers worked together for years, doggedly pulling body after body out of the Pit. They found that only two dozen of their bodies fell into the Pit at a time. Only after those two dozen were taken out, and after the new cycle began, did two dozen different bodies drop for them into the Pit.
They never got a clear answer to the question of how far their responsibilities extended for the deaths of those under their care. Misha had mostly ordered the deaths of others. For example, on those days when the ship needed to dump cargo, in this case Africans, Misha ordered a sailor to choose a hundred or so of the chained souls and throw them overboard. He never did it himself. On the other hand, Heinrich had a mix of direct and indirect murders on his conscience. At first, he saw the faces of the bodies and immediately recognized them. They were all people he remembered murdering. As the years wore on, he saw more and more faces he only recognized in a vague, they-were-in-the-Camp, kind of way. Only after he’d taken them to the river did he get to find out how he’d killed them.
Somehow, Misha finished his bodies in the Pit first. It shocked them both to the point that Misha continued to go into the Pit for a dozen extra cycles looking for bodies that weren’t there. They’d grown closer over the years, and Heinrich was genuinely happy for his friend. But Misha was clearly upset at the prospect of being done.
“What is the point?” Misha asked Heinrich after the German tried to congratulate him. They sat on the edge of the pool. Heinrich had just sent off a young Roma he’d shot for trying to escape.
“What am I to do with myself now?” Misha’s question was as much for himself as for Heinrich, and he understood why.
The Camp was guarded at all times by brutal men, handpicked by Marcus. It was run by a former friend of Heinrich’s, Otto, who was clearly no longer his friend. All the bodies that dropped in that part of Hell were inside the gates. No one got in there, ever, unless they were dragged or invited in. The guards often patrolled the desert near their boundaries and captured anyone they found. Regular convoys of new inmates were brought from the City to be tortured and held inside the Camp. Deborah had recently turned around four guards. Of them, two were destroyed before they could leave the Camp. The guards brought their shards out to show Deborah on her next visit. The third escaped the Camp but was captured less than a mile away, along with several others who were part of Deborah’s team. Only one actually made it out to continue his reform and help Deborah in her work.
Heinrich and Misha had no access to the hundreds of bodies they were responsible for in the Camp. Without doing those bodies, they had no way of ever making it to the Gate.